Monday, December 19, 2005

Saturday, December 10, 2005

I earn my wheels

Work is progressing on the "Fieldingville Railroad" - I found that with about 3/4 of my eBay track, I could make at least two ovals in the space available. I might still be able to make a siding and a small oval of trolley track yet.

But my mobility has been slipping; pain in my leg, hips and lower back has made it very painful to get about, or even up and down. This morning we filled the prescription for a wheelchair - I was worried it would be one of those giant, heavy chrome things, but it turned out to be rather elegant. Black and charcoal grey, and very narrow in action, fitted exactly to my size. But the morning was beautiful, rarely sunny and clear for December, and Gail suggested a short road trip; she read in one of my books about the Piper Museum in Lock Haven, PA - located at the old Piper factory where fabric-covered planes like the famous Cub and our own Tri-Pacer were built.

It was a great day for a drive, and we drove it - attended by beautiful winter skies like this. Gail took a small batch of photos - check out the very outgoing "museum cat"! (I have an album of photos of the Piper Aircraft Museum from June, when CAP buddy Alan and I flew down for "Sentimental Journey 2005", an annual fly-in at the old grass strip at Lock Haven.)
Beautiful sunsets on the way home provided a few more great landscapes, but we had to be content with the rearview mirror for the rich red and orange sunset - we were headed east! But at least I got to try out the wheelchair, and start building up my shoulder muscles... phew.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Yet Another Disease

In this case a relapse of a condition I had as a child - I've come down with a case of Electric Trains. It is often overlooked as a harmless hobby, but the fact is that acquiring and operating model electric trains can become a mania, one that takes over lives and breaks families apart.

I exaggerate, of course. And I never actually got into it on a railfan level, or invested great sums of money in equipment. But when I was in grade school my mother let me indulge in a small N gauge layout (2-1/2' x 5') and a nice little collection of locomotives and rolling stock. (N gauge refers to the size, in this case one of the smallest; appropriate for apartment dwellers, as you can fit a longer track in a smaller space. HO is the most popular, twice the size of N; and O gauge are the large and very detailed trains, and the most expensive.)

Test track
Uploaded by AviatorDave.
When I went off to college, I sold my layout and about half of my trains with it. The ones that I really liked, like the hard-to-find trains and cars from our local area, I boxed and have kept stored for the last 20 years. Last week I took them out of storage, at first just to show Gail, but then I got fascinated all over again. I took a long piece of extra track from my workbench and taped it to my computer desk, and set about refurbishing my locomotives. The tiny gears and electric motors hadn't moved or been oiled for two decades, so it could have destroyed them to just put them back in service. I spent the next few days happily disassembling the locomotives, cleaning and lubricating the tiny mechanisms (one steam switcher engine is about 2 inches long!)

I got them all working again, including one that my long-departed uncle gave me, that never worked. Gail heard me across the room, zipping the little engines from one end of my desk to the other as I tested them. Well, that can only be fun for so long... I should really put up a simple oval of track and run them for a while. You know, just to keep them in good working order. I don't have any more track, but I bet I could find some cheap - on eBay! Yes, I went into the model train area on eBay, and yes, I found and purchased over 100 pieces of used track for a song. But I also found a zillion other electric train items, and I have browsed there endlessly since. (It's staggering to see how much people spend on this hobby; one perfectly-detailed O gauge train and coach set went for over $3,500!)

I also bid on and won a steam engine (for the much more modest sum of $37.98), a Pennsylvania Railroad K-4 "Pacific" that was built in larger numbers than any other train like it, back in the days when the PRR was the largest railroad in the world. I always wanted one to go with my set of Pennsy passenger coaches, even though I have a nice little GG-1 that works well with that train. The K-4 that I bought is an older model, well-used but serviceable, and even if the motor is bad I can replace it with a 5-pole motor that will run more smoothly at low speeds.

So now I have another project to keep me busy - I will scrounge up a piece of plywood, set it up next to the spare bed and nail down some of my eBay track in an oval or two. When I can't get around much, I can run my trains and hear the wheels click, and watch the drivers churning away on the old steam engines. Especially the pride of my old fleet, a Lackawanna Railroad "Hudson" heavy steam engine and a matching set of Lackawanna coaches, in handsome grey and maroon livery. Good clean fun.

Status Report

I guess I haven't posted a thorough update for a while, since I'm getting a lot of other inquiries; it's no bother, nice to know that I have such concerned friends and family. Everyone seems afraid to disturb me, but I appreciate hearing from you; if I'm too sick to answer a phone call or email, I will get back to you when I can.

I have been on the new chemotherapy program since last Tuesday, and have been tolerating it fairly well. It involves a switch back to the platinum-based drug that I started with back in August, but at that time I was taking another drug at the same time. The combination or dosage made me very ill, right before the wedding unfortunately. This time around I seem to be retaining my appetite and health in general, even though the schedule calls for a massive dose every two weeks. My next chemo treatment will be Thursday the 15th.

I've written about the troubles with my blood counts; the three that seem to concern the doctors the most are hemoglobin, white blood cells and platelets. We spent two weeks juggling drugs and shots to try to stimulate my bone marrow, which is crucial in the production of new blood. The radiation treatments were suspended for this time, which is the Catch-22: if we treat aggressively with radiation, it will interfere with my bone marrow. But so does the cancer; it has retreated into my bones, where the chemotherapy takes the longest to penetrate.

While off the radiation, the cancer that we were treating - in my right hip - has grown worse, and I have developed at least two new tumors above and below my right knee. Since this past Sunday, the increase in pain has made me almost lame; Gail has had to lift me out of bed several times, and support me while I stagger just to get to the bathroom. For the last two days I've only been able to keep going with my cane by taking a much larger dosage of my primary pain medication, oxycodone, and other drugs. Tuesday night I overmedicated and had some scary secondary symptoms.

The best news this week is that we finally got all three blood counts into the acceptable ranges, and the radiation treatments will resume tomorrow. We had one plan in place for my lower back/pelvic area, and a new one is being designed for my leg. These targeted treatments have proven effective in the past; we cured my left hip, left shoulder and neck this way. I have hopes that the new treatments will be as effective on my right leg, and let me be mobile again. In other good news, my weight is back up to 180 lbs, from a nadir of 171 (and a pre-cancer weight of 230). They did notice that my calcium levels are up, which I guess might be from all the Boosts and Ensures that I've been drinking, not to mention lots of milk and pudding. High calcium is not necessarily good news; it can mean that the calcium is not getting absorbed by the bones, and getting stored in the bloodstream. This can lead to other troubles like kidney stones and bone spurs.

That's the nuts and bolts of it. In general, I'm in good spirits, mainly due to my amazing wife; she looks after me physically, emotionally and nutritionally. And of course to all of my friends and family, who have all been a great support and comfort. Unable to walk or stand much, I've been keeping myself distracted with books and the internet, and with working with my hands; the model kits that I mentioned in an earlier post, and another new project that I will relate in the next.

Thank you all, and especially Gail, for your patience and love. Status Report: Hangin' in there.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Movie Review: "City of God" (Cidade de Deus)

Gail picked this Brazilian film for our Netflix queue, based on its success at the Toronto film festival and other accolades; and I'm sure she was intrigued by the narrator/protagonist, who is a photographer of sorts. The title refers to a government-created area of low-income housing in Rio de Janeiro; a favela, or slum at the time of the story (1960s - late 1970s). The wealthy citizens and luxury hotels of Rio cannot brook living alongside the urban poor, so they are herded into a sprawling shanty community with little or no amenities, social services or police protection. Inevitably the ghetto becomes a place of desperation, massive drug trafficking and violent crime - even small children go armed with handguns, and lives are lost seemingly every hour of the day.

In this frightening place lives Busca-Pé (nicknamed "Rocket") a young boy who has no wish to be a thug or criminal, nor to toil away at menial work that will never lift him from poverty. He finds that he has a natural eye for photography and begins to document the world around him; but the violence is so pervasive that it allows virtually no hope of being anything but criminal or victim.

The film wasn't exactly what we anticipated; it is overwhelmingly brutal, difficult to watch at times, although artfully shot and edited. The pace is relentless and the bullets fly; no one is spared, no place is safe, which may be the central theme. Finer emotions and motivations are hardly present, including Rocket's pursuit of photography - various gangs of thugs struggle for power, guns and drugs. In a fascinating hour-long DVD extra, the truth of the favelas is revealed through interviews and news clips; the movie, though based on a novel, is an accurate picture of this cruel place.

I couldn't watch it again, but it does offer an honest portrayal of human predation and violence; the depths of cruelty that hopelessness and poverty can breed. (And on an odd note, the characters in the movie have some truly great nicknames: Li'l Zé, Shaggy, Carrot, Knockout Ned, Clipper...)

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Saga of 02P, Part IV

Halfway home
Uploaded by AviatorDave.
I left this story with Karen and I landed at the Parkersburg, WV airport. We parked 02P among the sleek white airplanes on the private ramp, her exhaust pipes pinging as they cooled. The sun was setting, the weather was just easing out of hot and muggy into a damp evening cool, and we were at a good-sized and modern little airport - one that was completely deserted. The snack counter was closed, the big waiting areas and gate were devoid of people; we began to wonder if there was a soul around besides us. We did come across a line guy in the FBO, chatting with a woman who turned out to be the only other person on the premises - apparently, they fold Parkersburg up and put it away early!

We asked about cheap hotels nearby, and began to skim the phone book and call around. Karen, having lived the airport-hopping life for so long (as both flight attendant and co-pilot) has a mania for finding THE cheapest hotel, and took to the task with relish. I found one for $44.00, but she dug up another that was only $38.00! We were still far enough south for Southern Hospitality, and the line guy offered to drive us out to the hotel, even though it was almost 20 minutes away - 20 long minutes, weaving up into quiet West Virginia foothills.

The motel was a shambles, well-worn and sunbaked, with cracked pavement and broken glass everywhere; the kind of place where everything was bolted down. As we walked to the office, some of the room doors hung open, and the sounds of small celebrations and domestic arguments drifted around. We checked in and picked up some cold sodas, and back at Karen's room we giggled over the sheer awfulness of the place. (And Karen advised me to peel back the slipcover from my bed as she did, and shared some other sanitary advice fitting for No-Tell Motels.) In my room, I stretched out and tried to shake off the day's adventures and worries. I was concerned about the condition of the plane, for one thing; the overheating problem, and the high oil consumption could indicate expensive problems. And I hoped that the weather would improve; the next day's forecast was iffy, with low ceilings and a chance of rain. I didn't want to have Karen miss any of her flights - she and Sal both work for the airlines, and with two toddlers their weekly schedule is carefully planned.

The next morning we called a cab to take us back to the airport, but it looked like we were going to have to wait for the weather anyway. Fog and haze, and not a breath of wind; nothing to do but wait to see if it burned off in the sun. Finally after 10:30 or so we decided that we had the mandatory 1,000 feet (maybe 950) and boarded the plane. We climbed up until we bumped our heads on the ceiling, and skimmed along that way for a while, just managing to keep good visibility - where there weren't clouds, there was thick summer haze, and navigation would have been a challenge if we hadn't had the little GPS unit. Things went well until we got into Pennsylvania again, and the clouds started to get lower and more uneven. I began looking for an alternate, and we decided to land for a while at Allegheny County airport near Pittsburgh; I'd been there many times, they have a big C.A.P. squadron and a nice old terminal.

As we neared the airport, we were in communication with the tower, and we were truly "scud-running" - weaving around the clouds, trying to stay visual, since we weren't filed or equipped for blind flight. A Bad Idea. We actually had to make use of a river valley to make the airport area, figuring that if I kept over the river I wouldn't clip a mountaintop. Then we got a traffic report from Allegheny County, it seemed that another aircraft was using the same dodge I was...

"Tri-Pacer 02P, traffic at your 1:00 and two miles, blimp."

"Ahhh, roger, Tri-Pacer looking..."

And sure enough, there drifted into view the ample hindquarters of the Goodyear Blimp, dead ahead! I passed around the big ellipsoid (at least I can outrun some things in the air!) and beat them to the airport; the crew of the blimp was seeking refuge from the weather too. We taxied to the ramp, and the controller paid me the first compliment I was to get on the merry paint scheme of my plane; the first of many since then. We parked near the flight school, and had an audience of grounded students. They were marveling at the odd collection of refugees brought to earth by the fading weather: first a crazy little blue-and-yellow Tri-Pacer, then the mooring crew racing out to meet the Goodyear blimp, then a local TV helicopter. While we waited out the weather for 90 minutes or so, I chatted with a little boy and his grandmother who had come out to watch airplanes, and I couldn't resist taking him out onto the ramp and letting him climb into 02P; the first of many tours since then.

We staked out the weather station at the flight school and waited for acceptable conditions, and eventually decided we could try the next leg; I would bend our course to the north and try to make use of Pennsylvania's corduroy geography, flying parallel up the glacial valleys to get us back to the northeast. Central Pennsylvania was referred to as the "Hell Stretch" by the airmail pilots of the 1920s, just for this reason; lowering clouds and mountains can combine to make a deadly maze. But as we crossed the state, conditions were improving, and the plane was running better too; oil temp and use went back to normal, and we were able to climb a bit for better fuel consumption. Our northernly course took us over Lock Haven, the ancestral home of the Tri-Pacer and thousands of other little ragwing Pipers; so I flew directly over the old Piper factory, today only a rural airport and the neat little Piper Museum.

Finally we were back in our home radar service, and I contacted the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton controller. We had made the last two legs into one, thanks to the reduced fuel burn, and we headed across Scranton and up to Cherry Ridge. Karen was able to contact Sal on the way in, and he and their little twin boys were there to meet us - "We want to see the circus plane!" The day was sunny by now, and we took some pictures, and let out a huge sigh of relief. I wasn't done flying for the day, though; I had to collect my car from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton airport. So I arranged for my mother and my squadron CO Les to meet me down there; Les would drive my car back for me, and Mom got her first ride in the plane, back to Cherry Ridge.

It had been a long, hot, challenging journey across 850 miles... but here finally was my plane, in my hangar. Whew!